Native wildflowers are taking over at Deborah Sheppard’s marshfront property in Darien. And that’s just how she’s planned it.

Sheppard, who previously led environmental groups including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia (before it merged with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy) has come full circle with Florabundance Gardens, her business selling native plants.

Sheppard majored in horticulture at the University of Georgia, graduating in 1976. But growing native plants wasn’t a big topic of discussion in horticultural schools in the 1970s. Quite the opposite.

“What we did in horticulture school was we tried to see how far outside the natural range of something we could grow things,” Sheppard said as she showed off her home-based nursery on a May afternoon. “Yeah, our goal was to grow things that didn’t belong.”

She’d remained a gardener ever since, but only started growing native plants when, after leaving the Riverkeeper in 2013, she had to deal with her mother’s dementia and her brother’s pancreatic cancer. Then 2017’s Hurricane Irma flooded her house so badly she had to build anew farther from the marsh and 12 feet off the ground.

Laminated photos at Florabundance show the native plants in bloom. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

“I had a rumble of two dying family members and a hurricane,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I needed a good bit of horticulture therapy.”

At the urging of Christa Hayes, an old friend who co-founded the nonprofit Coastal Wildscapes, she made the jump from hobby to business.

“She got in my face and basically said, ‘If you’re gonna do this, you should do something useful. Why don’t you start a boutique nursery, a native plant nursery?'” Sheppard recalled. “I’ve known Christa long enough to know that if she tells you to do something you probably should do it.”

Sheppard sells plants at events, including Coastal Wildscapes’ spring and fall plant sales often held at the Ashantilly Center in Darien. She had her biggest single day of sales ever at the Chatham County Native Plant Sale & Tree Giveaway at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden in March. Sales from her home are by appointment only as outlined on her web site.

Customers won’t get lectured if they prefer an exotic plant here and there.

“I’m not all native at all, she said. “I’ve got a whole section to the nursery of hardy tropicals. I grow them all over the place. I love some banana trees. I love ginger lilies, calla lilies.”

But she will offer advice about how the natives behave.

“Gardening with native plants is not a conquering experience. It’s a cooperating experience. I mean, it’s really true. It’s not, ‘I got this,’ it’s, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ We’ll see what happens.”

Take the swamp sunflower, for example. It grows up to five feet tall and doesn’t mind throwing its weight around.

“It’s one of these things that grows in the fall that just like eats up the ditches,” Sheppard said. “If it starts getting towards your kitchen, you need to worry because it’s gonna be competing with the teenage boys for dinner. It’s only desirable in a landscape like this,” she said, gesturing to her expansive garden.

She sells a salt-tolerant hibiscus that “seems to actually like salt water.” The dune sunflower has a taste for salt, too. Florabundance carries two varieties of milkweed, the darling of anyone who wants to attract monarch butterflies. But Sheppard warns that if you’re successful in attracting these butterflies, they will pillage the milkweed.

“The minute I get a milkweed any size, here comes a monarch or some other butterfly and chews up the foliage and does its thing, which is my goal, right? So I’m not unhappy about this.” But milkweed needs to be treated as an annual, she said.

“We should absolutely buy it,” Sheppard said. “We should absolutely grow it. There’s no question. It needs to be grown. It’s very important to this whole thing. But you’re gonna have to replant if you succeed. You will need to replant it.”

Her yard is a riot of plant propagation, with new life poking up wherever it finds its niche — between pots, in beds and on the garden paths. Sheppard and her son Carter, who’s become integral to the business, keep their eyes peeled for seedlings to pot up for sale.

With the proper caveats in place, she matches plants with buyers. “What I’m finding is the more I learn about this and share it with people they go, ‘Oh, okay, I know exactly where to put that. I can put that at the road. I can put that on the edge of the woods and then I’ll put this somewhere mixed in or in front of my bushes.'”

Sheppard’s plants are hyperlocal, said Hayes, the friend who nudged her toward the business. She relies on plants and seeds collected in and around McIntosh County, rather than commercially available seeds grown elsewhere. It’s a distinction that adds value.

“Those genotypes can be quite specific to not only a region, but to a smaller area within a region,” Hayes said in a phone interview, explaining that insects that feed on the plants and the birds that then feed on the insects have all evolved together. “That’s the one thing that she really has focused on, I think more than many others,” Hayes said. “And I really respect that because it’s a lot harder.”

An estimated 40 million acres of the U.S. is planted in lawns. These nonnative grasses — often treated with pesticides and herbicides — don’t provide habitat for insects at the bottom of the food chain. Birds in particular depend on a steady supply of fatty insects, especially caterpillars, to feed their young.

Authorities in McIntosh County, where Florabundance is located, agreed last month to restricts both mowing and herbicide spraying along its 88 miles of county roads. It’s a move that is likely to allow natives plants to thrive.

Native plants aren’t always well behaved in a garden setting, Hayes said. She shies away from calling them invasive, because after all, they belong here. She will allow that they can be be aggressive.

That’s where Sheppard’s guidance can be key.

“She does understand that there’s a right place to put a plant and she understands what that is and can share that knowledge,” Hayes said.

It’s knowledge that’s continually growing with the help of customers. Customers provide not only feedback about what plants work where, but they also share the plants themselves.

“This is also happening a lot with me,” Sheppard said. “I will sell somebody plants. There’ll be a good gardener. They’ll be successful. They look down. There’s 300 seedlings. They call me and say ‘you want these seedlings?'”

“It is a fascinating business model. You would absolutely think there would be gold in this situation, but it doesn’t work that way because a lot of the plants don’t look good for big periods of time. And therefore that’s why they’re not in the big box stores or in the nursery market.”

The business isn’t easy, but it is satisfying for this horticulturalist turned activist turned horticulturalist again.

“Yeah, this is a labor of love,” she said.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...